In July 1937 the pioneering interfaith organisation The World Congress of Faiths held a residential conference for delegates representing the world’s religions at Balliol College and Somerville College. Somerville College Chapel’s donor, E.G. Kemp, was a member of this organisation and was eager that the delegates should use the new College Chapel. In a letter to Helen Darbishire, then Principal of Somerville, she exclaimed: ‘How pleased they [the delegates] will be to find a Chapel [where] they can meditate and pray – a better setting than in London.’ Kemp was referring to the first conference of the World Congress of Faiths held at University College, London, in the preceeding year.
Kemp printed the leaflet (above) independently of the College authorities to promote the use of the Chapel for prayer and meditation by the congress delegates, and to explain the symbolic meaning of the stained glass window by George Bell. The leaflet soon proved to be controversial, and Darbishire contacted Kemp asking her to refrain from distributing it. Darbishire gave her reason for this as the factual inaccuracy of the sentence ‘Somerville College was founded in 1879 as a place of Religion, of Learning, and Education.’ She explained in a strongly worded letter to Kemp that the phrase ‘place of Religion, of Learning, and Education’ was not part of the original foundation, but a later clause included in the College statutes of 1926.
The attendees of the 1937 conference included a number of notable national and international religious figures, for example: Yusuf Ali (translator of the Qur’an into English), Dame Edith Lyttleton (novelist and activist), The Begum Sultan Mir Amiruddin (Indian social and educational activist), Muang Aye Muang (of the World Buddhist Mission, Burma), and Aylmer Maude – Tolstoy’s biographer, friend and translator.
The proceedings of the conference describe that in addition to the formal papers and discussions, devotional services were conducted for members of other religions by Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist delegates. Yusuf Ali noted of these, that: ‘There may be differences of opinion as to whether people can enter into the devotional spirit of a religion to which they do not subscribe, but there can be no doubt that, given the right atmosphere, we are enabled to enter into the basic ideas underlying every earnest man’s [humankind’s] prayer and longing to reach the spiritual.’